What is Sola 5 doing? What does Sola 5 do? These are two common questions posed by interested parties wanting to know how Sola 5 functions and how it ministers. What ministries does Sola 5 run, oversee, and support? What churches is it planting? What does Sola 5 achieve? The answer? “Nothing”! Sola 5 does nothing.

On the other hand, Sola 5 churches do many things, and have a multitude of ministries. The correct question is not, what is Sola 5 doing, but rather what are Sola 5 churches doing? That’s because Sola 5 is an association, not a denomination. True to our baptistic ecclesiology, we are an association of likeminded, independent local churches expressing our likemindedness, unity, our interdependence through formal association. Sola 5 does not send out missionaries, plant churches or train pastors, Sola 5 churches do. Sometimes they do so on their own, using their own resources. Sometimes they do so in collaboration and cooperation with other churches with pooled resources and joint oversight. Sola 5 functions as the facilitator for such cooperation in many instances.

This raises some valid questions regarding the nature and role of formal church associations. Is there any need and basis for formal associations? What is the difference between an association and a denomination? What authority does an association or denomination have in matters of church difficulties, differences, disputes, and discipline?

Let’s begin then by asking the question, is there any need or basis for formal associations?

The Need for Associations

There is certainly biblical precedent for associations. The churches in Jerusalem and Antioch cooperated doctrinally (Acts 15:1–35). The churches of Macedonia, Achaia, and Galatia cooperated financially and missionally (1 Corinthians 16:1; 2 Corinthians 8:1–7). The very fact the letters of the New Testament were circulated amongst the churches is proof of their association and fellowship.

David Kingdon, writing in Associations or Denominations? (edited by Dr James Renihan), suggests that the anti-associational tendency amongst many Reformed Baptists is a modern phenomenon, which goes against the grain of our history. Our Baptist forefathers did not consider formal association between churches to be optional. Membership in an association was as vital to a church’s health as church membership is to an individual.

The 1689 Baptist Confession of Faith (Chapter 26, Paragraph 14) is testimony to that fact:

Each church and all its members are obliged to pray continually for the good and prosperity of all Christ’s churches everywhere. At all times, churches should assist all believers within the limits of their area and calling in exercising their gifts and graces. Therefore, when churches have been planted by the providence of God so that they may enjoy the opportunity and advantage [of fellowship], they should seek fellowship amongst themselves to promote peace, increase love, and mutual edification.”

Earl Blackburn, also writing in Denominations or Associations? points out the dangers of isolationism, saying,

It breeds an elitist mentality, a hyper-censorious spirit toward other confessional churches, a stunting of spiritual growth among its members, a negative and pessimistic attitude, and a distorted view of the kingdom of Christ. Therefore, each church, under its Spirit-directed elders, should earnestly seek out and formally join an association of churches of like faith and practice.

Errol Hulse, in the same volume, gives ten reasons for association:

  • to show visible unity to the world and churches (John 17:20–22);
  • to gain greater knowledge, communion, and love with sister churches;
  • to afford counsel and advice in difficult cases;
  • to preserve uniformity of faith and practice within the confines of our confession of faith, especially in dealing with doctrinal and practical questions;
  • to detect and deal with heresies, and in so doing maintain harmony and peace in the churches (1 Corinthians 14:33);
  • to curb licentiousness in wanton abuse of church power;
  • to cooperate in the spreading of the gospel both at home and on foreign soil;
  • to provide a place for the education of our children and of men called to the ministry;
  • to supply the pulpits of sister churches in the event that one is without a teaching/ruling elder or pastor; and
  • to advance in every way possible the interest of Christ’s saving religion and strengthen and draw closer the bonds of union and fellowship.

Dr. Renihan writes, “Just as no man is an island, so also no church is an island.”

Thus our Sola 5 Core Value 20 on autonomy and interdependency states,

God has instituted the local church as a self-governing body through which his people will be evangelised, edified, and engaged in good works for his glory. He has also revealed in his word that a local church may cooperate with other local churches (Matthew 18:15–20; 2 Corinthians 8:16–21).

Therefore, we affirm the principle of local church autonomy, as well as that of the interdependency of local churches. We also affirm that local churches may cooperate with each other in order to unite their efforts and resources around common projects.

We deny the need to form an institution with officers bearing instruments of power that would undermine or even replace the autonomy of any local church. We also deny that any local church should ignore its relationships with other local churches; in particular, no church should receive members from another local church without regard for disciplinary measures taken by that church.

But do associations need to be formal and, if so, what does that formal association look like? Associations don’t need to be formal but, if they aren’t, they really amount to nothing. There is no structure, no firm basis for associating, no statement of shared belief or common cause. There are no rules of engagement, no commitments, no responsibilities, no accountability, and no security. It is like a couple living together without being married. All the advantages mentioned above are simply theoretical if the association is not formal.

So, what should the formal association look like? A denomination or an association? What’s the difference?

The Difference between Associations and Denominations

Both are expressions of unity and cooperation in common causes between local churches that share theological, doctrinal, and praxis convictions. Both seek to beneficially and practically model the cooperation seen between local churches in the New Testament.

So, what is the difference? The answer is extremely complex because of the variety of forms that both may and do assume in different church traditions. In one sense all denominations, associations, conventions, unions, conferences etc. are “denominations.” They all have their shared “denominators” (i.e., the “labels” or “names” or “nomenclatures”—the “nominators” attached to the distinctives, that define the various groups, and distinguish them one from another, such as Baptist, Presbyterian, Anglican/Episcopalian, Apostolic, etc.).

Historically and traditionally however, the label “denomination” has been accepted by and applied to churches with a lower view of the autonomy of the local church, and a higher view of authoritarian, hierarchal ecclesiastical structures such as Presbyterian or Episcopalian. Baptists and baptistic churches on the other hand, with a high view of the independence and autonomy of the local church, have been nervous of the label “denomination,” preferring to be called “unions,” “conventions,” or “associations”—labels that better describe their interdependence and co-operation while maintaining their independence.

Generally and broadly speaking, denominations function with a top-down authority structure. The denomination (head office) is the church and holds the ecclesiastical authority. They often go by the name “Church”: “The Presbyterian Church in America” (PCA) and “The Church of England” by way of example. Their local congregations function as branches of the church/denomination, with authority being delegated and devolved down to them from head office.

Associations, on the other hand, are not churches and do not have any ecclesiastical authority. Local churches are churches, each having their own independent, and autonomous ecclesiastical authority. The local churches associate, convene, or unite voluntarily with other likeminded churches in their associations, conventions, or unions. The churches delegate authority to the associations in a bottom-up authority structure.

Denominations therefore have authority over their churches, whereas associations have no such authority.

This raises the important question of what authority an association has in matters of church difficulties, differences, disputes, and discipline. “So what is Sola 5 going to do about the matter of—”?

The Authority of Associations in Matters of Church Difficulties, Differences, Disputes, and Discipline

In denominations the matter is simple: The authority lies with the synod or council. The Westminster Confession chapter 31.2–3 says,

As far as the ministry is concerned, it is the responsibility of synods and councils to settle controversies of faith and cases relating to matters of conscience, to set down rules and directions for the better administration of the public worship of God and of church government, and to hear complaints in cases of maladministration and authoritatively to settle them. If these decisions conform to the word of God, they are to be accepted reverently and submissively, not only because they agree with the word but also because they rest on authority ordained and arranged by God in his word

It belongs to synods and councils, ministerially to determine controversies of faith, and cases of conscience; to set down rules and directions for the better ordering of the public worship of God, and government of his church; to receive complaints in cases of maladministration, and authoritatively to determine the same; which decrees and determinations, if consonant to the word of God, are to be received with reverence and submission; not only for their agreement with the word, but also for the power whereby they are made, as being an ordinance of God appointed thereunto in his word.

Simple: The presbytery, synod, or council has the authority, makes the decisions, and imposes them upon the churches.

With associations, it is not so simple. Officially, the association doesn’t have any authority to meddle in inter- and intra-church matters. The churches are autonomous, which literally means “a law unto themselves.” They are self-governing. Within formal associations, the member churches have, on their own authority, chosen to bind themselves in union with the other churches of the association. They have chosen to “submit to one another out of reverence for Christ” (Ephesians 5:21). Of course, that verse is within the context of a local church, but as Paul goes on to apply that imperative to marriages and households, we may apply it to the broader church as well.

The Baptist churches of the seventeenth century held that the express purposes of their unions was to resolve disputes, promote truth, and unity. The 1689 Baptist Confession Chapter 26 Paragraph 15 states,

When difficulties or differences arise in points of doctrine or [church] administration which concern the peace unity and edification of churches in general or any single church, or when a member or members of a church are injured by disciplinary proceedings not consistent with truth [in the word] and [church] order, it is according to the mind of Christ that a number of churches in fellowship together, through their messengers [representatives], should meet to consider the matter in dispute, give their advice about it and report to all the churches concerned (Galatians 2:2; Proverbs 3:5–7; 12:15; 13:10). However, when these [representatives] are assembled, they are not entrusted with any real church power nor with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves; they cannot exercise discipline over any churches or persons, nor impose their conclusions on the churches or officers (1 Corinthians 7:25, 36, 40; 2 Corinthians 1:24; 1 John 4:1).

In similar vein, the Sola 5 confession (Chapter 7.6) states,

In cases of difficulties—whether in matters of doctrine or administration—that concern the churches in general or any one church, it is Christ’s will that representatives of the churches meet together to consider the matter and give their advice to all concerned (Acts 15:1–35; Galatians 2:2). It should be understood that the governance of a church is only valid to the extent that it conforms to the will of Christ the head (Revelation 1:12–20), and because Christ’s will is not defined by the decisions of a local church or of its leaders, a church may often be helped to follow Christ by obtaining counsel from other churches (Proverbs 12:15; 13:10; 19:20). The representatives do not have power to impose their decision on any church or its officers or members, but their counsel must be taken seriously, in the spirit of genuinely seeking the Lord’s will; local churches should be aware of the danger of rejecting wise and godly counsel (Proverbs 1:20–33).

Note the limitations of the power of the association. The 1689 says that the representatives “are not entrusted with any real church power nor with any jurisdiction over the churches themselves; they cannot exercise discipline over any churches or persons, nor impose their conclusions on the churches or officers.” The Sola 5 Confession says, “The representatives do not have power to impose their decision on any church or its officers or members.”

That does not mean they are toothless. The 1689 envisages strong informal pressure being put on churches or individuals by reporting “to all the churches concerned.” It implies that all the churches would be standing in united counsel toward an erring church or person. Sola 5 says the same thing, but takes it further in saying “the governance of a church is only valid to the extent that it conforms to the will of Christ the head (Revelation 1:12–20),” and that “Christ’s will is not defined by the decisions of a local church or of its leaders.” In other words, we do not unconditionally accept the biblical legitimacy or “validity” of every church, its leaders, or its authority structures. The Sola 5 Constitution (clause 5.1.g) allows for the termination of the membership of a member church which no longer meets the requirements of membership.

In that way, the Association provides protection and recourse for churches, elders, and members within the churches.

What is Sola 5 doing? What does Sola 5 do? What is Sola 5 going to do about the matter of—? Answer? Nothing! But, in all of these matters, Sola 5 churches will do together what we cannot do alone.

Peter Sammons

Peter Sammons

Germiston Baptist Church

Peter Sammons is the pastor-teacher of Germiston Baptist Church in South Africa, where he has served for more than twenty years. Peter was instrumental in the founding of Sola 5 through his close involvement in the Spurgeon’s fraternal, out of which the association was birthed, and has been an instrumental part of the associaton for many years.